After Zelenskiy’s Visit to the United States, What We Need To Understand about Ukraine and NATO

Joining NATO is a puzzle that Ukraine will have to solve by putting the pieces together, and Washington is only one of the pieces.

I have seen many critical opinions of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s unsuccessful visit to the United States, a visit that was targeted specifically at gaining America to recognize that Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Frankly, I am surprised to see the issue formulated in such a way; NATO membership is a foreign policy decision-making process, primarily for Ukraine. We have already made our choice and even enshrined it in our constitution.

Our next step is to pave the way for a political consensus among the member countries in the future and, simultaneously, to follow the principles of a basic domestic policy that will bring our standards closer to existing NATO standards. And here we are not just talking about the army; there are many other priorities for the public authorities.

It’s a complicated talking point that seldom encourages discussions. For example, there is little public awareness of a special annual program* that has been developed for many years in Ukraine and is very similar to the terms and content of the membership action plan.** Every year it is carried out and evaluated by NATO; we have to determine to what extent we implement it qualitatively. I feel that it is the response to the political positions various NATO member countries take on our prospects if we can imagine that Ukraine fully, or at least in large part, carries out this program. What arguments will remain for the member countries on our membership? None, except the argument that Vladimir Putin will attack! That position diminishesif Ukraine is stubbornly willing to assess these risks on its own and face up to them.

Now, let’s talk about the results of Zelenskiy’s visit to the U.S. and his meeting with Joe Biden.

Ukraine’s path to NATO membership is irrevocable; there is a clear understanding of it in Kyiv, Washington and Brussels, regardless of the requirements our partners impose on Ukraine and the positions they sometimes take. It should be understood that the rhetoric at the official level concerning Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO is often dictated by domestic policy agendas, and does not always reflect the actual state of affairs. In this case, it is worth paying attention to the relationship dynamics among the countries and focusing on diplomatic trends. Zelenskiy’s visit to Washington and the joint statement of the two presidents was no exception.

Zelenskiy became the eighth leader and the second representative of a European country (after Angela Merkel) to meet with Biden at the White House. This shows that Washington is paying exceptional strategic attention to Kyiv, despite the fact that this meeting took place right after the very painful U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This suggests that Ukraine is relatively high on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities, even in the face of recent global turmoil. In general, the fact that Ukraine was able to gain so much attention in Washington amid issues concerning Afghanistan and China is already a small victory.

The meeting resulted in the publication of a signed Joint Statement on U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership, featuring two priorities: security and reform.

The U.S. announced a new $60 million military aid package to Ukraine, including Javelin missiles and other lethal and nonlethal weapons, which is certainly a positive result for Ukrainian diplomacy. Ukraine, in turn, pledged to reform its policy in the security and defense sectors, in particular with respect to rthe Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, and promised to implement anti-corruption reforms.

The U.S. requirements are part of a policy that has developed in recent years with respect to Ukraine — assistance in exchange for reform. The issue of anti-corruption reform is the most fundamental one for the United States; during the NATO summit in June, Biden clearly stated that Ukraine must eliminate corruption to join NATO, and asserted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a reason to deny Ukraine’s membership.

In general, the U.S. rhetoric and the results of this meeting correlate with the results of the previous NATO summit. One can easily trace the following pattern: Ukraine chooses its own foreign policy path; in order to be ready to qualify for the NATO membership action plan, it must achieve results in implementing reform. This is an integral part of Ukraine’s process in securing NATO membership. The U.S. seems to have clearly defined its role in this process — to support precisely those crucial points that Ukraine must fulfill in order to qualify for the membership action plan.

It should be understood that Ukraine’s progress in achieving NATO membership is considerable. We are more prepared for NATO membership than any other country in the last 30 years, and we have already completed much work toward this goal.. Final steps remain, but they are very important steps needed to quality for a membership action plan and join NATO. We must complete our clearly articulated homework assignments, something our strategic partner urges us to do. Frankly, it is not a pleasant process because it points to our shortcomings which we are addressing but have not yet resolved.

And one more thing. It’s not surprising that the United States is not talking candidly about the terms of NATO membership for Ukraine. Not all member countries have the same position on admitting Ukraine to NATO, and some of those countries will soon hold elections, which, of course, will affect their foreign policy.

Therefore, the U.S. is not going to take any steps that could provoke a discussion about Ukraine within NATO. And accordingly, U.S. assistance from this perspective is just one indication that, practically speaking, we are ready to join NATO, which means that the only thing remaining is to prepare politically and, once again, show our commitment to the Euro-Atlantic transformation of Ukraine.

The author, Olena Sotnyk, is a human rights activist and served in the Ukrainian Parliament from 2014-2019..

*Translator’s note: This may be a reference to the National Annual Program, which was presented under the auspices of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. It was implemented in 2009.

**Editor’s note: A membership action plan is a tailored program for nations seeking to join NATO, designed to provide guidance for future membership.

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